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Jon Vanderbeek - Sarah, Rubber Ducks, Sodium, Saugatuck Steam Team

(photo credit Kim Zahnow)

What do you do in the industry?

I'm an inventor and developer of the actions that you see a toy do and how the child engages with it.

What is your claim to fame in the industry?

That I know and am friends with the best in the business.

Why and how did you get into the toy and game industry?

In Industrial Design School at UC I was required to take internships to graduate and I worked at Bang Zoom Design, one of the leading toy invention companies. During school, I pursued other career opportunities in the corporate world, high end furniture and interiors and landed back at what seemed like a lot of fun to me. Building utilitarian items in toys that have no useful utility anywhere else!

What are you working on now?

My wife Sarah and I started Sweet Spot Studio, Inc. in 2006. I am told we are in the top 100 influencers in the business and am humbled by my competition.

What trends do you see in toys or games that excite or worry you?

Tariffs worry me and toy hits excite me. The toy business is important to hearts and minds everywhere. It won’t go away!

What advice can you give to inventors who are presenting new toy or game ideas to you?

Be ready to do most of the work. Most successful toy inventors can make it on their own if they had to. I have contacts and skills, but inventors like me have a backlog of ideas of our own already. Go out and follow your bliss and passion and work on a lot of ideas in a couple of categories. Become an expert at a brand or category so that you are important to the business. Don’t worry about doing everything. Be good at one to three things.

What advice would you give a young adult graduating from high school or college today?

Get a job at the best company that you can get into and go from there. Best is which one you respect the most.

What does your typical day look like?

Three hours of work at 8, three hours of lunch with hiking and running through the woods along Lake Michigan and another three hours of work in the afternoon followed with family time for 3 hours and if I am busy, some night working. Lots of phone calls with people I work with all day and night.

What’s your workspace setup like?

I work in my machine shop, which is split up into a comfy space with studio desks and one 3d printing lab with 6x printers and a traditional machine shop with a CNC that cuts within .0006” tolerance. I am surrounded by most toy components that I need for a job and the ability to make anything else.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

It was getting the respect that I worked for from people that I respect. It still is, but now I am enjoying giving back to the community most of all. Working with my local elementary schools on art projects. Founding our local “Saugatuck Steam Team” that comes to the school and local art center to make cool kinetic projects that celebrate Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math. The A is very important to me or it would be “S.T.E.M.”. I am too much of an artist and must add the “A” and make it “S.T.E.A.M.”>!

(2018 Human Spirograph Paint to Slime Camp SCA)

What is the worst job you’ve ever had and what did you learn from it?

I didn't have a worst job. I like people and enjoyed something in all my work. But in my third job in high school, the guy running the restaurant didn’t have the respect to fire me in person and just marked my name off of the calendar. I’ll never forget that feeling. I appreciate straight shooters that handle their business with respect and transparency.

What’s a problem you’re still trying to solve?

The formula for the perfect invention.! lol

What and/or who inspires you?

All of the great scientists. Newton, Tesla, Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson. The great mythologist Joseph Campbell and naturalist, David Attenborough.

How do you recharge or take a break?

Hiking and working out, swimming, boating, water skiing, tubing, hanging out with friends and my kids.

What was your favorite toy or game as a child?

GI Joe, Transformers, He-Man, Capsella, Legos.

Where were you born?

Germantown, OHIO.

What was your life like growing up?

A town of 5,000 people that my family settled in 1803 surrounded by people that knew my aunts, uncles and grandparents. My class had 114 students. My brother and I were kids of artists. Our Dad was the art director at the Dayton Daily News during a time when illustration was very popular. He would hide our names in the illustrations he made for the paper and other national magazines.

Later on when he illustrated backgrounds for the Simpsons, he put our names in a background on episode 1814. My mother raised us on creating the yellow pages. We grew up around art production. One grandfather was a mechanic and the other one a man of God for the Presbyterian faith, but he was really a philosopher who would say that Jesus was probably black in the 1960’s. I ended up mixing up my Dad the cartoonist with my mechanic grandfather to become a cartoon, toy mechanic of sorts. LOL>

Where did you grow up and how did that influence who you are today?

Germantown, OHIO. The coasts seemed fancy to me when I left but now the mid-west seems fancy.

What is one mistake you’ve made, and what did you learn from it?

Wouldn’t be a mistake if I learned from it!

What do you read every day, and why?

Facebook. Everyone does it. I am just admitting it. I love keeping in touch with all the people that I cannot keep in touch with using 20th century technology.

What is your favorite gadget, app or piece of software that helps you every day?

My iPhone X has a fantastic camera. These things are literally magic if my 9 year old self had them. I don’t need a film camera anymore!

How do you jumpstart your creativity when you find yourself stalled on a project?

I make up stuff flying by the seat of my pants and try to nail it down into workable specifics right away. It takes 10 years to build this skill up and lots of pressure.

When is the last time you laughed out loud? What caused it?

This question makes me laugh out loud but I am not sure why! I laughed out loud when I saw this picture (Theodore's ducky) that I saw while reading Theodore Grays Second book called Molecules. I think a Sodium cast Rubber Ducky is hilarious. Did you know that Sodium was a metal? This is funny because sodium is highly explosive when it reacts with water and no one would make a rubber ducky out of Sodium. Thats laugh outloud when you are a chemistry nerd.

Are you named after anyone?

Not really but My great grandfather was named John Vanderbeek but my name is Jon Vanderbeek. He was also a Presbyterian minister.

Do you have any kiddos?

Three girls under 10.

(Saugatuck STEAM Camp - Building Stunt Cars)

Do you have any pets?

Twin cats and yes, more girls.

Do you have any guilty pleasures?

I never feel guilt for any pleasure that I experience.

What’s in your fridge?

Everything, I have a family of 5! What isn’t in my fridge is potatoes and tomatoes. It's just not a good idea.

Do you play any musical instruments? If so, which one(s)?

Juice Harp and Trombone and I am tone deaf with no rhythm. My wife and kids are musicians.

What’s your favorite cereal?

That's a trick question.

What’s the first thing you usually notice about people?

The expression in their eyes. I can know a person immediately by looking them in the eyes and listening to one sentence.

What is your eye color?


Do you prefer scary movies or happy endings?

I don’t like scary movies because it's always based on someone being really stupid and then I have to stress about their dumb decisions. LOL

Summer of Winter?

Summer under 85 and winter under 25 is how I like it.

Hugs or Kisses?


What’s your favorite TV show?


What is your favorite night out?


Favorite movie of all time?

Princess Bride, Idiocracy and Kung Fury.

What’s the furthest you’ve ever been from home?

Costa Rica, Spain or LA, which is further?

Do you have any special talents?

I am very talented at stilts and pogo stick.

What’s your beverage of choice?

Malted milk.

What are your hobbies?

Collecting fossils and gems, working on classic 60’s rods and cruisers, sailing, jewelry making, furniture making.

Everything would have been different if…

I didn’t marry Sarah.

The toy and game industry clearly has….

To always have mechanisms.

I’m lucky that….

I have surrounded my self with great people.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

I want to pursue all of my interests and I am doing just what I love to do.

What’s next?

Honestly, tomorrow. I will keep producing hopefully like a Willie Nelson of the toy business and keep going forever.

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